Monday, October 03, 2005

Climbing on "The Band Wagon"

I saw Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" yeesterday for the first time. Absolutely wonderful movie. Best known as the source of the song "That's Entertainment!" it's considered by many people the best MGM musical ever made, and I can see why. It's so free-wheeling and spontaneous, and the great Fred Astaire and the divinely leggy Cyd Charisse make immaculate partners. It's a backstage musical whose thin story -- about a washed-up hoofer (Astaire) making a comeback -- serves mainly to lace together a number of old Arthur Schwartz songs from the 1930s. The songs have nothing in common but their author; they don't grow out of the story organically, and they certainly don't seem to all be a part of the same musical in the story. These are all very so-what matters, though; you barely have time to think about them because the whole enterprise from top to bottom has such razzle-dazzle verve, and you never once see the work that went into it. It all looks fantastically, magically easy. A real work of glorious Hollywood art. I think I could stand to see it once every few months just to lift my spirits.

I also watched "The Thin Man" again. Another great one. Someday I'm going to have to make myself read the Dashiell Hammett book, which I've been saving (along with "The Glass Key") for a rainy day or two. It puts you right in the Hollywood 1930s fantasyland of sophistication and wit, where those independently wealthy crime-solvers Nick and Nora Charles (the raffish William Powell and the delectable Myrna Loy) can spend most of their gloriously idle existence drinking, kissing, walking the dog, drinking, cracking wise, drinking, solving crimes, drinking, making love, drinking. They are deliriously in love with each other -- who WOULDN'T be in love with Myrna Loy? -- and they get more attractive the more they imbibe. It seems churlish -- even downright Debby Downishish -- to point out that severe alcoholism hastened Hammett's destruction and that Nora's inspiration, Hammett's long-time live-in crony Lillian Hellman, was an intemperate old bitch who is mainly remembered now for (maybe) one play play and (mainly) for her inflated, self-important and possibly fraudulent memoirs. After I read separate biographies of Hellman and Ayn Rand< i saw them as opposite sides of the same coin: raving, self-absorbed control freaks who crushed anyone who got in their way, and nothing like Nora at all.

I get to see Myrna Loy again in "The Best Years of Our Lives," another one I haven't seen in eons, and which interests me now because James Agee -- whom I'm reading very, very, very slowly -- wrote about it at some length. I suspect he thought it was more important than it turned out to be, artistically; I recall it as being a great film about life after the war, but maybe not a great film on its own -- when I watched it before I thought of how timely it must have seemed back in the day, and how it didn't hold up quite as well today. I remember it being a compulsively watchable two-plus hours; a great story without the kind of long-lasting depth you want in a classic. Anyway. Enough of my bullshit for now.

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